LeBron James is going to Hollywood and it was probably a waste of time to think he was ever going anywhere else. There are so many reasons for James to sign with the Lakers—the cap space, the history, the lifestyle, his off-court interests, his Brentwood mansion—that no other location could offer as compelling a case. Cleveland can’t beat the Warriors. Philly is probably too young. And Houston would have been too tricky. Instead James will head to Los Angeles, where he can do what he’s done the last two times he was a free agent: Build a championship team to his liking.
James’s decision to sign with the Lakers echoes what he did in 2010, when he signed with the Heat. Facing a brick wall in the Celtics, Bron joined forces with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to thwart their common rival. James is in a similar spot now, running into consistent championship interference from the Warriors, and he has a desperate need to put together a star-laden squad to compete with one of the most talented teams of all time. The Lakers offer James that opportunity.
Who will join LeBron next? Will Kawhi Leonard’s insistence on being sent to Los Angeles force the Spurs to trade him over? Los Angeles has the most flexibility to put together a roster that LeBron approves of, one that’s on the same timeline as his career. That alone is a good enough reason for James to join the Lakers. All the other factors likely made it a much easier decision. In L.A., James can raise his kids in a city they’ve already spent much time in. He can start to keep an eye on his post-NBA plans. And he can live in the same city as plenty of other world famous and insanely rich people.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka deserve credit for landing James. The duo didn’t exactly sell him with an elaborate pitch, but Johnson and Pelinka reversed course after mistakes from L.A.’s previous regime, and did a noble job of keeping space open for this summer—something many other teams have failed to do. As a result of Pelinka and Johnson’s maneuvering, the Lakers had two max-salary slots, as well as the assets to potentially engineer a trade for Leonard. (Kawhi’s preference to play in L.A. certainly helps, but so does nailing draft picks like Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.)
There will be some initial awkwardness seeing James in a Lakers uniform. He’ll likely avoid the vitriol that came with his decision to join the Heat, thanks his own persistent greatness and a media course-correction in how free agency is viewed. LeBron will have to deal with an intense fan base as well as inevitable comparisons to Kobe Bryant. Some people will question the fact that three times at the height of his powers, James felt the need to switch teams.
None of that will matter if the Lakers win. If LeBron adds another ring or two to his collection—and takes down the Warriors along the way—it won’t matter that he joined Kobe’s former team. It won’t matter that he only won once in Cleveland. It won’t matter that he linked up with a different set of superstars. James knows the value of championships outweighs everything else when it comes to his on-court legacy, and potentially creating a legitimate contender will matter more than the first time a basketball writer feels uncomfortable seeing LeBron in purple and gold.
One way or another, James will package his decision to be palatable for the public. He’ll pay his respects to Cleveland. He’ll explain that his legacy is bigger than basketball. He’ll discuss how he made this choice with regards to his family. There will be degrees of truth to all those statements. Personally, I think James sees the Lakers as his best chance to win now and as his career continues. Stars will want to come to L.A. to play with LeBron, and I don’t think James—someone who expects to be in the Finals every summer—is comfortable letting the Warriors run amok with titles.
What does this move mean for the rest of the league? There’s going to be a huge concentration of power in the West. The Warriors, Lakers and Rockets will probably end up as title favorites. The East is now wide open for the Celtics and Sixers to perhaps dominate for the next decade. And a lot of dedicated fans are going to have to prepare for groggy mornings because they stayed up late to watch LeBron and Steph.
There was a fear after Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors that the NBA would be ruined with a sense of inevitability. Polarizing regular-season performances, off-court hijinks and Joel Embiid’s twitter account saved us from a couple boring years of basketball. But the last two NBA Finals could be described as underwhelming at best. In retrospect, how Durant’s decision ultimately affected the NBA the most was to force stars to concentrate in order to win. It may not be fair to every market, but it’s surely made the league more interesting.
LeBron’s decision to (likely) form a new superteam of sorts in Los Angeles is a win for everyone. It’s a win for the NBA’s bottom line. It’s a win for a storied franchise looking to resurrect itself. And it’s a win for fans who want to see the Warriors eventually challenged at their highest level. In that case, James signing with the Lakers didn’t only make the most sense for him. It made the most sense for everyone.